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Early Modern English pronouns

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically pronouns – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.

Pronouns are little words but have big consequences! One of the reasons for that is that pronouns refer to people involved in the speech or writing, including in the fictional worlds of literary texts.

The second person pronoun “you”, and its related forms, is particularly important in connecting speakers with others, but was additionally important in Shakespeare’s time because there was an additional set of second person pronouns revolving around “thou”.

The choice between these two sets had implications for meaning. Huge quantities of research have attempted to understand those meanings inside Shakespeare and outside. Generally speaking, “you” forms were relatively normal – more frequent and less marked, less salient. “Thou” forms do seem to conform to a number of minor patterns, including their use in condescending to someone, but it is very difficult to generalise. What is particularly important is when the character suddenly shifts from one form to another, as indeed King Lear does with his daughters at the beginning of the play.

Have you noted “thou” forms in Shakespeare before? What did you assume that they meant? Have you ever come across these forms in today’s language (they are actually still used)? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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